Disaster-vulnerable groups and the reality they faced 1

Disaster-vulnerable groups refer to people who need special help in a disaster. These people have difficulty evacuating on their own and need support. Of course, this means they also need special consideration after evacuating. Although they might have high priority on temporary housing lists, there isn’t even a place for them in shelters. For example, there is no consideration for those handicapped people who may have difficulties using general toilets, and they are not given first priority for spaces that accommodate their special needs. So disabled victims couldn’t stay, but had to find places other than shelters or live in cars. Then, if they weren’t living in shelters, they might not receive supplies and such. It became a never-ending cycle, and that was really exhausting at the time.

Disaster-vulnerable groups and the reality they faced 2

One person can only push one wheelchair, you know. It would be great if we had 10 staff members for 10 wheelchair users, but we were short-handed.

That’s the sort of thing people understand once you tell them, but I also want people who aren’t involved in social work to be aware of these things that were happening.

Crafting and Sakuranbo 2

They used to complain about being busy when they had work, but once it was gone they said they were bored, haha.

I think they learned to be grateful for having jobs. I guess they were just reminded of the importance of having something to do. It changed the way they saw their work. They have started getting used to it and changing their tune again, but in a way, I think that’s happiness because it means they’re getting back to normal.

Some trainees who were absent a lot before the disaster also started coming every day once we started crafting. We ended up getting a lot of orders. We tried different things every day to make sure they wouldn’t get bored.

Since after the disaster until now, we’ve somehow been able to raise their wages. We still haven’t gotten back the work we had before the disaster. It’s really like we started over from square one. It’s thanks to the kind assistance of so many people around the country that we’ve been able to recover this much. It’s really put me in awe of the power of the support we have received.

Our trainees needed work clothes, gloves, etc. because everything had been washed away. We had to buy them. So I realized that it was important to recover and sustain our business, because a sound cash flow was actually quite essential for their lives.

Movements to reopen

Mr. Hatakeyama and I talked about looking for a place to reopen in the Iriya area (an area in the Minami-Sanriku-cho valley). Not that we had any prospects.

After agreeing to keep checking on our trainees and look for a place to reopen, we left the evacuation center on March 18th.

Mr. Hatakeyama and I started working again on March 22nd. Our foundation’s car was fine, so we used that to get around. We were really grateful that Kesennuma City designated vehicles belonging to foundations as emergency vehicles early on, so we got priority access to gasoline.

So I would meet with Mr. Hatakeyama every morning, and we would go around visiting our trainees in different evacuation centers.

Meanwhile we found a location to reopen in at the end of March.

The whole while, as different problems came up, like being unable to get a prefab building, we made a list so we could ask for assistance later.

In the rush to build temporary housing, we did manage to get a prefab even though it was just a rental, so I guess it did go smoothly.

But I think it took a long time from our trainees’ point of view. Every day was long for them. It’s easy for us to say it went quickly, but I think it felt longer to the people in evacuation centers.

I think it was around mid-April when we made a suggestion in order to get our trainees together as they were all scattered in different shelters. They couldn’t bathe at the shelters, so we decided the employees who were available would take the trainees to a bath house 2-3 times a week in Naganuma, Tome City. They just went to take a bath and have a meal. Though it wasn’t everyone.

We did that in April and May, mainly with the trainees living in evacuation. We had no place for everyone to gather, so we went on this way until we reopened in Iriya. It wasn’t everyone all the time, but we were able to get together at the bath house.

About the foundation’s other facilities

It wasn’t actually designated, but we had one evacuation center especially for disabled people. Social workers, disabled people, and their families who had lost their homes lived together in the mornings and evenings, and during the day they continued their activities as usual. The family members also went to their jobs and such from there.

Non-disabled people from the region also evacuated to our other facilities, and some of them stayed until August at the latest. Those facilities also asked Kesennuma City to support them as evacuation centers for the disabled, and got special public aid.

Those facilities shared their supplies with Nozomi, so we distributed them to our trainees living in shelters.


Reopening and connecting with JDF

Around the time of the Golden Week holidays in May before we reopened, we learned about JDF (the Japan Disability Forum). These people wanted to help the disabled. We had them plough the fields with us when we first reopened in the prefab in Iriya in late May.

The JDF people came from all over the country, all the way from Hokkaido in the north and Okinawa in the south.

We set up a map of Japan and filled in the prefectures people had come from. We wanted to thank the people who’d come to support us, so we later sent them our newsletters that showed them how well Nozomi was doing.

The start of paper making

When Mr. Hatakeyama and I thought about the future, we knew the trainees couldn’t work in the field in winter, so we had to find something for them to do indoors.  Then someone just happened to suggest paper making.

When staff members from the “Sendai Te o Tsunagu Ikuseikai” Foundation came to visit, they gave us a set of paper pressing and stenciling tools. After we had begun making paper, the “Setagaya Lions Club” social services group also provided a paper pressing machine.

We moved to the next prefab in November before it got cold. It was a little bit bigger than the one in Iriya. We could all fit inside on rainy days, and there was heating, so we were relieved we could get through the winter.

So the things we had to do kept expanding, but for the first two or three years it was kind of chaotic. We all just sort of kept going without getting ourselves organized.

Of course there were also times when we solved various problems on our own. But there were lots of people thinking of us, so sometimes it seemed to me like things were decided more by the people who came to help us than by us.

We really met some amazing people, and they came at just the right time to support us. Not that we didn’t notice it at the time.

I think it was the same for our trainees. Myself and Mr. Hatakeyama suddenly brought in all these people, and before our trainees knew it we had a paper pressing machine. It wasn’t so much of their own accord as that they were almost forced into it, but they sensed what was happening and said, “We’re doing this!” I think they just adapted to the changes that were happening every day.

With the stencils we first received, it wasn’t like the product would come out the same way no matter who used them. Paralyzed people needed support, for instance. So we had to find our own ways to help them use these tools as we watched them.

As we kept devising ways and means, one of our trainees became really motivated after we got busy with the paper making. He used to take off work a lot to help with his family farm before the disaster, and it would have been fine for him to keep spending time on that, but he still came to Nozomi every day and confidently said, “We won’t get it all done if I take time off.” I realized he was taking pride in this work.

About various supporters

We didn’t do this all on our own. Some people found us directly or through Nozomi families to help.

It was like someone always connected us with someone else. We didn’t actually do much to seek out help on our end.

We were just there, and people came. We were really blessed. It was miraculous, like people were drawing in more people to support us.

For the first two years or so, it was like we had guests almost every week continuously.

In Minami-sanriku’s case, the town mayor had appeared in the media, so we had some publicity. That put a spotlight on us, which I think was part of what brought so many people to help us.

Sometimes I wonder if things would have been different if we’d been in a different place at a different time.

About future activities

Thanks to the liaison meetings for disaster affected vocational support centers for the disabled, we were connected with the Able Art Company (now Able Art Japan), which shares the artwork of disabled people with communities. They admired Nozomi’s passion, and with them we decided to create something combining paper making with a symbol of Minami-sanriku.

Since the Moai statue was coming to Minami-sanriku again, we had our disabled trainees draw Moai illustrations, then choose one drawing to make into products. Able Art Company then started by making towels. The project moved along at a steady pace after that.

But we can’t rely too much on these Moai goods as our leading products. We have to develop new items to expand our product scope, or our sales will peter out.

This is a severe world, and it might be naive of me, but I do hope to pass on this legacy to society. These wonderful goods produced by disabled people were actually co-created with so many people who have supported us.

My ideal is for people to pay for the products simply because they’re good products, not out of sympathy for disabled people. Then afterwards I want them to be like, “Wow, this was made in a place like that!?” Those are the kinds of products we want to make.

A lot of our trainees aren’t used to being recognized, so by having them create these products, we hope to break down misunderstandings and spread awareness about disabled people. We want to show people that actually, there’s not much disabled people can’t do.

All people hear is the word “disabled,” and they immediately think it must be awful.

No matter how hard we’ve tried, there are still things people just don’t properly understand about the reality of disabled people, and that’s our challenge. So we’re doing our best to increase social awareness through our sales of these paper products for that purpose.

We hope to continue to grow along with our trainees, without forgetting to be grateful for everyone who’s gotten involved with Nozomi.

Relief supplies

Even though help wasn’t coming and everyone felt like giving up, they didn’t forget to speak up.

Did supplies arrive after the temporary group home was built?

Kayoko: For start-up supplies, we had declared these 7-piece sets our trainees would need when they entered the group home, so we got those.

But there was a general temporary housing complex behind our temporary group home, and they got daily supplies for each household there, but none came to our group home. Even though daily supplies had arrived for everyone in the region, our group home was ignored in spite of this perfectly visible building.

Ogawa: Like potatoes and mandarin oranges. Only the people in the house behind us got those.

Kayoko: Not that we really wanted those things.



Kayoko: You can see the entrance of that temporary housing complex right outside our group home window, so our trainees could see supplies being brought in. So I think maybe they felt a bit bad.


Why were those group home residents left out from the daily supply distribution?

Kayoko: We weren’t on the local registry somehow. When I noticed that, I tried to identify the problem by asking questions like, “What number of what district are we?” If you’re not on the registry, you don’t get local information, and it’s difficult to live in the region if you haven’t built a community with local people in case something happens, so I had us put in the registry. As we started getting involved like that, the region started cooperating with us.

Ogawa: Anyway, no supplies came for around the first 2 months after we moved into the temporary group home.


What supplies came?

Ogawa: Vegetables and stuff.

Kayoko: They were living in a different place than before, so they didn’t know who the ward mayor was, and often felt uneasy about communicating with neighbors and such. I heard them say, “How are we different from our neighbors?” It seems they were treated differently from the average temporary housing complex.

Hand massage

Through her father’s contact, Ai started to participate in different events at the community space of the housing complex.


Was there anything that was particularly helpful or good in the life at the temporally housing?

Kumai: They received emergency relief supplies. The housing complex had events such as mochi rice cake making. Her father also worked for those events at the venue near the housing.


What event did you like the most?

Ai: Things like hand massage.

Kumai: A person came to give hand massage at events.


How did you feel when you were given hand massage?

Ai: I felt very good and it had a nice aroma.

Kumai: I believe they had a lot of supports at the temporally restoration housing for the disabled as there were many persons with disabilities and their families. Your father was working hard for different events there, right?

Ai: Yes.

Shoko needed medical support

Shoko first became worried when her phlegm aspirator’s battery died due to a loss of power, and she knew she might have difficulty breathing.

After the shaking stopped, did you return home?

Shoko: No, I moved to Minato Elementary School (near the Orion workshop). I stayed there for two nights, then some people from the Self-Defense Force took me to the Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital


Around how long were you in the hospital?

Shoko: I think it was around ten days.

Kumai: Shoko needed phlegm aspiration. When I told that to the managers of the Minato Elementary shelter, they said they would arrange to have her taken to the Red Cross Hospital. Then on Sunday (3/13), they moved her. We staff assumed they would take her straight to the hospital on the day they moved her, but we later heard she actually didn’t get there until two days later.

There was a nursing school right next to the elementary school, so apparently they had assistant nurses and nursing school students looking after her for the two days she stayed at the elementary school. After that, all those nurses gathered at the Red Cross Hospital, so the nursing-care helpers continued to assist her.

The people who evacuated to Hitakami-en

Around how many people transferred from general evacuation centers (like schools)?

Yanagibashi: I’m not sure about that number right now, but I don’t think many people came alone (most of them came as families). There were probably a few, but anyway, I think a lot of people were feeling lonely because they had lost their homes and families.

Since this was a residential facility, the rooms were around 9.5 square meters. We usually had two residents to a room, but then we assigned one room per household.

After the earthquake on 3/11, the victims had to face new problems for their futures as they lived together in evacuation centers. Almost all of them didn’t even have homes. So, with the cooperation of the Nippon Foundation and various other related entities, we built temporary housing (for the vulnerable people) in Oguni (a place in Ishinomaki City) to offer victims a place to think about their next steps.

It’s difficult to provide this kind of support with the staff of our foundation alone, so a lot of volunteers got involved with the evacuation center. We were able to continue operating the evacuation center thanks to their enduring support. After one or two months, some volunteers started bringing us ramen or cake. The staff of one vocational center for the disabled that makes cakes even brought us cake all the way from Aichi and Niigata. All kinds of people supported us from great distances.

The importance of connections

You said you contacted the Miyagi Prefecture and Yokohama City Visually Impaired Welfare Associations while you were in Yokohama. Was that because you wanted something to do?

I suppose so. I didn’t know what was going to become of me, and I think it was really good for me to build relationships with local people. I still maintain a lot of those relationships now.


So you’re still connected and stay in touch even from afar.

Yes. I started attending the Yokohama Visually Impaired Welfare Association ping-pong club after the director of the vocational support center introduced it to me, for instance. I felt bad for receiving help all the time and not giving back, but I really was fulfilled.


So even in that situation, you always had the desire to contribute somehow.

It’s nothing so noble as that, but I did feel like I wanted to do something. I’m still exploring it at the moment, but I’m thinking I’d like to do something to help visually impaired people in the Ishinomaki area find jobs. Some of my friends feel the same way too. Helping visually impaired people find work is quite difficult, but you won’t get anywhere if you give up just because it’s hard. For example, there’s a vocational support center for the visually impaired in Sendai that makes braille business cards and envelopes, and my other visually impaired friends and I are trying to find a way to do that ourselves. We just want to do something tangible. Once you have something tangible, then it’s easy to show the local government and such, and you can see the next step. We plan to keep moving forward with the cooperation of the local government and the Council. I also feel like the information network for visually impaired people isn’t very reliable. Information just doesn’t tend to make its way to us. Not all visually impaired people are part of a Visually Impaired Welfare Association. They might stay away from the Associations because they don’t like that kind of formality. I want those people to be able to get information, too.


You seem to be very active. Was any of this inspired by the disaster?

I suppose so. When I was in Kitakamicho, the public transportation wasn’t very convenient, so I stayed cooped up at home a lot. But then my parents died the year before the disaster, and I was all alone. I was thinking about what to do when the earthquake happened and I had to leave my hometown.


When you returned to Sendai from Yokohama and moved into an apartment, were you alone?

I was alone, with just one room. The apartment was privately owned, but the government treated it as temporary housing for disaster victims and paid the rent.


Did you receive any assistance there?

I had a home helper come help me with everyday things. Volunteers from Eye Support Sendai and the Japan Guide Dog Association Sendai Training Center also came. I also had a helper to assist me when I went out. I’ve learned to walk on my own so I can do it, but I’ve also heard of accidents happening, so I have someone help me whenever I go out.


Were your neighbors aware of your visual impairment?

I used my cane when I walked, so I’m pretty sure they knew.


Did any of your neighbors ever help you when you were walking, for instance?

I had a professional helper, so the neighbors didn’t help me, but once when I was practicing walking outside, someone said, “Feel free to let me know if you need help.” That was really nice.


I’ve heard from other visually impaired people I’ve interviewed that adapting to a new environment is really difficult for them, and that when they move into a new place it’s really frustrating until they become familiar with the space. Listening to what you said just now, I thought it must be really difficult for you to cross an intersection on your own and figure out how wide it is, or figure out how high steps are.

I think it’s more difficult indoors. Foot bridges and things like that have handrails and steps at consistent heights, so it’s fine. It’s in the inconsistent places, like really wide spaces, where I completely lose my sense of direction. When I was living in Sendai, I had just one room with a kitchen, a bath, and a toilet. So I could always stretch my hand out and touch something. I think that’s best for living alone. But it’s been more difficult recently living here (in a new house in Ishinomaki City). I moved here on August 7th last year, and a moving company moved all my things here so I had no idea where anything was. I couldn’t find the dish soap or anything. There was something that seemed like a drink sitting next to the stove for a while, but then I thought, “Wait, this can’t be a drink.” It turned out to be toilet cleaner! I ended up stumbling around running into things until I managed to rearrange them.

Developing products

Kirara Onagawa is famous for its “Sanma Pan (Bread with saury fish)”. Did that played a major role in your business?

The bread was a part of our products. Our main product is “Okara karintou (fried-dough cookies made with soybean curd residue). We received a lot of orders from people around Japan for this product, and that helped us tremendously.

Doing business with just one product to sell is very unstable. Having multiple items to sell can make the entity stronger. It is not easy but makes us more flexible and stable.